A Mission Viejo man was convicted of murder Wednesday for striking and killing an off-duty Costa Mesa fire captain while driving under the influence of multiple drugs following several days of partying.
An Orange County Superior Court jury found Stephen Taylor Scarpa, 27, guilty of second-degree murder for driving off the side of Alicia Parkway on a Saturday morning in November 2018 and fatally striking 44-year-old Mike Kreza, who was out for a morning bike ride.
Kreza was an 18-year veteran of Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue who lived in Rancho Santa Margarita with his wife and three young daughters. His passion for triathlons earned him the nickname “Ironman Mike.”
During closing arguments in Scarpa’s trial, dozens of his family, friends and supporters – including members of the fire departments leadership team – filled much of the Santa Ana courtroom.
During the trial, Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman described Scarpa as having a “drug cabinet” of substances in his system when he killed Kreza, including a mix of downers and stimulants consisting of methamphetamine and several prescription medications. Scarpa admitted to having been up for three days partying at a Westminster residence, the prosecutor said, and decided to drive home after blacking out for 18 hours and causing a scene.
“If you get so high you pass out behind the wheel and kill someone, you end up exactly where Mr. Scarpa is sitting,” Feldman told jurors as the trial came to a close.
Prosecutors opted to charge Scarpa with second-degree murder rather than a lesser count of vehicular manslaughter under an “implied malice” theory that while Scarpa did not intend to kill he knowingly acted with a reckless disregard for human life, knew his actions were dangerous and did them anyway.
Defense Attorney Rudy Loewenstein told jurors that Scarpa’s actions did not rise to the level of murder. Scarpa felt he was capable of driving, the defense attorney said, and believed the depressants he was taking would be counteracted by the stimulants.
“What this case really boils down to is Stephen did not deliberately act with conscious disregard for human life,” Loewenstein said.
During an interview with investigators after the fatal crash, Scarpa admitted to having previously driven while under the influence of similar substances, including when he reportedly crashed into a parked car seven months before hitting Kreza.
Scarpa described himself to the investigators as an addict, according to recordings of his interview played during the trial, and acknowledged having driven while under the influence while his daughter, then 3 years old, was in his car. Asked how that made him feel, Scarpa said he was “disgusted with myself, because I knowingly put my daughter in danger, and there are no ifs, ands or buts that make that OK.”
At the beginning of the trial, Scarpa’s attorney described the collision as a “perfect storm,” since Scarpa had driven more than two dozen miles without incident before falling asleep and in a “split-second” veering into Kreza, who was passing by right that moment.
In arguing that Scarpa was well-aware of the dangers of impaired driving, prosecutors noted that he was chosen to take part in the anti-DUI “Every 15 minutes” program while at Esperanza High School, and later worked for a rehab center, driving patients to meetings and appointments before a relapse cost him that job.
“The victim in this case mattered. He mattered to his loved ones, his co-workers at the Costa Mesa Fire Department, the community he served, and he mattered to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement following the verdict. “Mike Kreza is not a statistic. He was a husband and he was a father to three little girls who have to grow up without him. No child should have to be told that their daddy isn’t coming home because of the selfish decision of someone to get behind the wheel while under the influence.”
Scarpa is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Dec. 10. He faces 15 years to life in prison.
According to testimony during his trial, Scarpa admitted to finding a doctor who would prescribe him drugs not for a legitimate medical condition, but in order to get high. That is an apparent reference to Dzung Ahn Pham, a doctor who is facing federal charges of illegally distributing oxycodone.
Prescription bottles with Dr. Dzung Ahn Pham’s name on them were reportedly found in Scarpa’s vehicle after he struck Kreza, according to court filings in the federal case.
Federal prosecutors allege that Pham “flooded” Southern California “with huge quantities of opioids and other dangerous narcotics by writing prescriptions for drugs he knew would be diverted to the street.”
Along with his alleged link to the Scarpa case, federal prosecutors say drugs illegally prescribed by Pham also ended up in the hands of a gunman who carried out the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, as well as at least five people who died of drug overdoses. Pham is awaiting trial.